The riders on horseback trotted up a dirt road lined on either side by manicured vineyards.
The grapevine-covered hills in the distance absorbed the rays of a bright Mid-Columbia sun. The riders dismounted, lashed the animals to hitching posts and soaked up the view.
One thing was clear: Wine tourism is no longer confined to tasting rooms.
Regional businesses and wineries looking for inroads into the state’s $1 billion-plus wine tourism market have produced “full-family experiences” that include horseback riding, and hiking and biking tours.
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Teresa and Jeff Owen, owners of Red Mountain Trails, see potential in the growing industry, taking visitors on horseback rides through Benton County vineyards since April of last year.
Teresa Owen routinely leads weekday horseback rides through the grapevines of Red Mountain to accommodate her guests, though the company primarily operates on weekends.
“Wine tasting is great,” Teresa Owen said, “but people like to have an experience.”
Red Mountain Trails’ rides wind through several properties, including Klipsun Vineyards and Kiona Vineyards and Winery.
“It’s very Bachelorette-esque,” said JJ Williams, sales manager for Kiona Vineyards and Winery.
An “intimidation factor” prevents some tourists from visiting wineries, so activities like horseback riding can help quell the trepidation, Williams said.
“There are stereotypes of wine snobs for a reason,” Williams said, adding that the horseback tours show people that “wine is not just a commodity.”
“They can come here and see that we have holes in our jeans and we don’t have yachts,” Williams said.
This past weekend’s Ride D’Vine cycling event in Yakima was another opportunity for locals and visitors to have a wine-industry experience without sipping Chardonnay in a tasting room.
Ride D’Vine, organized by Catholic Charities Housing Services and in its second year, starts in Yakima and wends toward Granger. Riders choose between 25-, 50- and 70-mile courses that cross Yakima Valley and take riders through hop fields, vineyards, and apple and cherry orchards, including stops at area wineries.
Proceeds from Ride D’Vine support programs offered by Catholic Charities Housing Services like affordable housing, education and employment initiatives.
“The majority of housing we provide is for farmworkers and their families,” said Bryan Ketcham, Catholic Charities Housing Services director. “We want to draw a connection back to the land.”
Terra Blanca Winery and Estate Vineyards in Benton City offers year-round vineyard hikes where visitors can spend a couple of hours touring the property.
“They focus on the whole growing season, depending on what’s going on,” owner and winemaker Keith Pilgrim said.
During summer months, vineyard hikers can get an up-close view of the veraison process, when sugars increase and acids change as the grapes are exposed to long periods of high heat. Terra Blanca also plays host to dinner and cooking events and wine education classes.
“There’s all types of things going on,” Pilgrim said. “It just gives a stronger experience for the guests.”
The Kiwanis Club of Prosser will play host to its third Wine Country Trek on Sept. 27-28. The weekend trek begins and ends in Prosser and attracts dozens of riders from Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
“What we get are recreational riders who want to have a nice ride and not die in the heat,” said Barbara Anderson, president of Kiwanis Club of Prosser.
The event costs $150 and includes meals and visits to wineries each day.
Friends of Badger Mountain has created an outdoor Hike, Wine and Dines event, where participants hike area trails before heading to a winery for a tasting and meal. The next event is set for Sept. 26, and should include a hike to the top of Candy Mountain and a visit to Kitzke Cellars in Richland.
There is a fee, but Friends of Badger Mountain co-founder Sharon Grant said this year’s cost has yet to be determined. A portion of the money raised will go toward Friends of Badger Mountain’s $1.5 million initiative to create a Candy Mountain preserve as well as trails connecting Badger and Candy mountains.